Direct Sow vs Transplant – Which is Best for Your Garden?

Garden Planning · In the Garden · The Beginner's Garden Podcast

If you’re growing a garden for the first time, you probably have so many questions! One of the biggest ones could be the question of direct seed vs transplant. Or maybe you need to start some seeds inside. Which is best?

As I’ve learned, the answer is a frustrating one: it depends.

My first year to plant a garden, I bought baby tomato, squash, okra, and watermelon plants from Lowe’s. I was so new at gardening, it didn’t even cross my mind to plant anything from seed.

Planting seeds seemed too scary. Would it grow? When do I plant? Plus, truth be told, I didn’t want to wait. There’s an immediate satisfaction to planting a baby plant in the ground that you don’t get when you bury a seed.

Still, I learned quickly that planting everything from baby plants became very expensive the larger I expanded my garden. Plus, it didn’t always work out so well, depending on the plant.

The more I got into gardening, and the more research I did, I discovered certain plants ARE best when they’re planted as transplants, but I also found it’s unnecessary to spend extra money to buy crops as baby plants. Many, in fact, don’t do well when transplanted.

In this week’s episode of the Beginner’s Garden Podcast, I break down the plants that I prefer to plant as transplants, which one I plant as seeds directly in the garden, and which ones I start indoors. I explain why each plant responds better in the garden that way. Click below to listen or continue reading.

 

Seeds or Transplants Best Plants to Plant as Transplants in the Garden

Certain plants grow the best and give you the most harvest when you plant them directly in the garden.

Tomatoes, Peppers, and Tomatillos

Tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos require warm temperatures. If you wait until the soil warms up sufficiently in the garden to plant the seeds, they will not have time to grow and produce a good harvest. This is especially true for shorter-season climates. Those of us with long seasons could possibly get away with planting tomato seeds in the ground, but who wants to wait that long until the harvest? Plus, when summer temperatures rise in the 90s, most tomato plants stop setting fruit.

It’s best to get tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos an early start inside and transplant them in the garden when the weather warms.

Many beginners choose to purchase these transplants at the garden center, though now I start all of mine inside.

TOMATO SEEDLINGS

Broccoli and Cabbage

Broccoli and cabbage are tricky crops for the beginning gardener. In my southern climate, our short spring and fall seasons prove challenging for these long-growing but cool-weather loving plants.

When I naively sowed broccoli and cabbage seed directly in my garden — either in a spring or fall planting — they never had time to grow until the season changed.

For these reasons, it’s best to plant broccoli and cabbage as transplants in the garden at the proper time. You can purchase transplants at the garden center or start them inside.

cabbage transplants

Strawberries

Though strawberries can technically be planted from seed, they will take a long time to grow. I tried once with no success, even starting inside with controlled conditions.

But the bigger reason, I think, to plant strawberry crowns (transplants) lies in the wait to harvest. Strawberries won’t start bearing a full crop until the second season, and planting them from seed will delay your harvest even longer.

You can purchase strawberry transplants at a garden center (a more expensive option) or look for bare root transplants at a garden center. Get tips for growing strawberries here.

Most Herbs

Herbs are staples in my kitchen garden, and I’ve grown them with varied success throughout the years. Some, like basil and dill, are easily started from seed, but beginning gardeners will find better success planting them as transplants.

The reason? Not only to most herbs planted from seed grow slowly, but the seeds are also extremely slow to germinate. If you plant them directly outside, you’re less likely to tend to them and ensure they’re watered every day. If you grow them inside, you may have more success, though it’s still a long wait.

Other herbs like rosemary are reproduced through cuttings so you’ll have to purchase a transplant anyway. But once you do, unless you’re in an extremely cold climate, you’ll have rosemary for years.

Unless you’re growing an entire kitchen herb garden, which could get expensive to purchase all transplants, I recommend beginners start with transplants for all their herbs, with the exception of basil and dill.

frost on oregano

Onions

Though veteran gardeners will recommend planting onions from seed, onions require a very long seed starting period. I plant some of my onions from seed, and I start them indoors several months before my average last frost.

Unless you’re willing to babysit these baby plants for a long period of time, you’re best served by planting these as transplants. More on growing onions here.

Best Plants to Plant by Seed Directly in the Garden:

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While some plants are best planted in your garden as transplants, some either cannot be transplanted successfully at all or they will not thrive when having to switch homes. Some will adjust to a transplant, but because the transplant shock requires them to “regroup” in their growing, their direct-seeded counterparts catch up pretty fast. Here are the plants I recommend you plant from seed directly in the garden.

Beans and Peas

Bean plants do not like to be moved. Their shallow, sprawling root system wants to get started in their permanent home. Plus, you’ll need to plant more bean seeds than would ever be practical to transplant, even in a small garden.

Peas, also a legume, prefer a permanent home at their start. I have, however, seen more experienced gardeners start peas indoors and transplant them with care. When they do, they use peat pellets to help the acclimation to the final home.

Personally, though, because peas can germinate at lower soil temperatures, I recommend planting them directly in the soil. But if your climate prevents this (maybe you still have snow on the ground when the seeds need to be planted, starting indoors might be an option. (Click here to purchase peat pellets for a more successful start.)

green beans growing up trellis

Squash, zucchini, cucumbers, melons

If there’s one thing to keep in mind when planting the cucurbit family, it’s that while they can be transplanted, they don’t like it. Unless you time the transplant at the perfect time (the window is said to be only about a week), they will languish.

I planted cucumbers from seed indoors one year. They held so much promise! But shortly after I transplanted them, we experienced a cool snap. Despite protecting the seedlings from frost, they couldn’t handle the cold and they all died.

But when you wait for the soil to warm up, squash and zucchini seeds germinate quickly (within a few days) and, given fertile soil, grow at a rapid pace.

There may be reasons for wanting to plant transplants in the garden earlier. Maybe you want to get a head start and harvest before the squash vine borer arrives. Or maybe you have a very short growing season and you have to start watermelons earlier than the last frost. Experienced gardeners can do this, but beginners may struggle with the timing of it all. But unless either of those circumstances apply to you, wait til the soil warms up, and plant from seed.

Carrots

Root crops, in general, do not transplant. After germination, they make their home in the soil, putting down roots (pardon the pun). If you want a crop of carrots, plant them in their permanent location.

Lettuce, Spinach, Greens

You could plant lettuce, spinach, and greens as transplants, but they grow just as well from seed. Lettuce and other greens can be sown directly in the garden, but I do like to start my spinach seed inside in late summer for a fall and winter crop.

Because these plants grow so easily from seed, I think it’s the most cost-effective option, and you have more selection when you purchase seed.

Some Herbs

As mentioned above, I plant basil and dill from seed. They’re so easy there’s just no reason to spend the money for transplants. You can start basil inside early or plant it directly in the garden. It’s a fast grower. I always start dill directly in the garden.

Parsley and Cilantro are other herbs I have planted from seed. They do take a little longer to germinate, but they grow well especially in containers when kept well-watered.

Okra

Unless you live in a short-season climate, it’s best to plant okra from seed directly in the garden. Okra develops a deep taproot, which is best established in its permanent home. The key is to wait until the soil has sufficiently warmed since okra loves heat. I wait until a month after my last frost has passed and they grow quickly.

If you do live in a short season area, or if you don’t want to bother with seeds, okra can thrive when transplanted young, but since they’re so easy to direct sow, it’s usually the best and most economical choice to plant from seed.

Related Video: How to Save Okra Seed

Basic Seed Starting Supplies

If you’re wanting to begin starting your seeds indoors, you’ll want to grab some basic seed starting supplies. Here are my recommendations.

Seed Starting Mix. This isn’t the same as potting soil or garden soil. For best results, you’ll need a soilless seed starting mix like this one.

Containers. There are countless options to start your seeds, but I’ve found the easiest way to start out is with seed trays.

Of course, if you want to spend a little more for convenience, you could skip the seed starting mix and containers and go with the peat pellets

Grow Light. If you’re just beginning, I recommend a simple, inexpensive grow light. You’ll be able to start about two dozen plants with one of these. (Below I share comparisons between the two grow lights I have used.)

Tags to mark your seeds. The easiest way to mark your seeds is with these plastic plant tags or with plain craft sticks. (Caution, ink will bleed with craft sticks when wet.)

Spray Bottle (to water the soil as the tender seedlings begin to emerge)


Conclusion

As you walk on your garden journey, you’ll learn which plants you prefer to plant from seed and which ones need to be planted as transplants, but hopefully my experience will serve as a guide to get you started!

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